A Simple Smile

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By early fall of 1994, after five years on the road with our traveling T-shirt show, we had learned a lot, and collected some good stories. But the prospects for our business were grim.

Cruising in The Enterprise from state to state had given the two of us the opportunity to discuss a broad range of topics. (Cell phones hadn’t yet gone mainstream, so we had few interruptions). On a long drive home from a less-than-fruitful sales trip from Philadelphia to Boston, a recurring and puzzling topic resurfaced.  We were disturbed by the idea that, generally speaking, the news we received every day was (and sadly, still is today) overwhelmingly negative. You turn on the 6 o’clock news, and you really don’t get the 6 o’clock news, do you? Instead, you get the 6 o’clock violent murder report. Bad things do happen. But you know what? Good things happen too. So where’s the balance?  Where’s the good news? And what’s the price we pay for the constant barrage of images and information about murders, fires, corruption, terrorism and the threat of the next deadly epidemic?

In the eye-opening book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker provides an undeniable case that despite common perception, violence has steadily declined world-wide since the beginning of civilization.

In our travels, we saw the impact firsthand. Students on campus, with worried or horrified looks on their faces, seemed always to be catching each other up on the latest sensational disasters. It was the same with people on the streets. Wherever we mixed with customers, it was clear that the negative news cycle had a significant effect on the way people felt and acted. As optimists, it really bothered us. We knew that pessimism is worse than counter-productive. It’s corrosive. And we realized that the mass media plays a big role in spreading pessimism.

But then — in the midst of our ugly discussion, right in the dark, gloomy center of it — we saw an opportunity. What if? What if instead of harping on what’s wrong with the world, we could help people focus on what’s right with the world? If we really want to find solutions, why not create a rallying cry for optimists?

Three Simple Words

By the end of that year, sales on the road weren’t strong enough on their own to keep us in business. We had rented a cheap apartment back in Boston, which was doubling as a design space for custom jobs. Creating T-shirt graphics for gas stations, local bars, and softball teams wasn’t our dream work, but it was helping to keep our dream alive.  Sparsely furnished, the apartment was also an ideal spot for good old-fashioned keg parties, which our friends had come to expect whenever we returned from voyages in The Enterprise.

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When we got back from one particular road trip, we weren’t exactly in party mode, but we sucked it up and threw a good bash anyway. It was a ritual, and the parties were actually useful for our business. We’d supply the beer and a few tales from our travels, and in return our friends would give us feedback about new T-shirt designs that we taped up around the room. Instead of including blank paper for their feedback, we let them write what they wanted on the walls, right next to the drawings, which added to the fun.

A great crowd showed up for one memorable party.  We were both enjoying the chance to catch up with friends, so we hadn’t made time that night to look over the comments on the walls.  When we got up in the morning, it was clear that one loose, simple sketch of a bohemian guy with a giant smile had stolen the show. There were dozens of notes around that drawing, and one of them jumped out at us. A girl at the party had drawn an arrow pointing to the face and wrote, “This guy’s got life figured out.”  We thought that was pretty cool.  We also thought it was pretty long, so we distilled it into 3 simple words, “Life is Good”.

This article is excerpted and adapted from the book Life is Good by Bert and John Jacobs, published by National Geographic on September 1, 2015. Copyright © 2015 The Life is Good Company.